11.08.2008 - 13.08.2008
I have been diving and snorkelling off the coast of northeast Malaysia. I stayed for two nights at Flora Bay on Perhentian Besar; there was no alcohol and people went to bed early, but it was a very pleasant spot. This is the sort of thing you see at dawn.
Flora Bay has a reef a few cables off the shore, so that at low tide the inner part of the bay is effectively a lagoon, full of blennies and black sea cucumbers. I also saw an octopus on the way out. It was not pleased to see me and squeezed back into its coral home.
I snorkelled twice at Shark Point, a brilliant place to snorkel. I saw two hawksbill turtles, resting at three metres and five metres. The first had two remoras attached. The site was also notable for its numerous parrotfish. Most are psychedelically coloured, often combining pink, purple and iridescent green. They have mouths like a parrot’s beak, with fused teeth, and they eat by scraping away at rock or coral; when you are snorkelling you can hear every mouthful they take. Every now and then they spit out a mouthful of chewed-up rock. Fish follow them to search through the rejected aggregates. I also saw (perhaps) a bumphead parrotfish – blue, very large and very odd-looking. And on every dive in these Malaysian islands I have seen squirrelfish and checkered seaperch, which look as though they have already been barbequed.
I also saw something you don’t want to see at all: a crown of thorns starfish. Not only are these ugly and extremely venomous, they can eat their way very rapidly through entire reefs. Divers kill them as pests, but they are difficult to kill: you must either carry them back to land and bury them, or inject each leg with the contents of the starfish's stomach. Miss a leg and the animal survives; and they have up to twenty of them.
Best of all, seven black-tipped reef sharks swimming along the reef beds, one at a time. The first time I saw one it was a bit of a shock, but I knew that they are not aggressive unless cornered. One of them circled around me as if on a four-yard rope. These sharks are blue-grey and grow up to about six feet in length.
Diving at the Pinnacle (Tokong Laut), we saw a school of squid, a blue-spotted stingray, a small yellow-margined moray eel (they look fearsome, but they aren’t), a small nurse shark, a million fluted oysters (with zigzag edges like Jack Pumpkinhead’s mouth), triggerfish, a lot of parrotfish and a lot of dendronephthya soft coral.
Relaxing afterwards I noticed for the first time a lot of Christmas tree worms. They are tube worms, and each pair of trees is the respiratory organs of a single individual. They grow in bright primary colours. As soon as anything approaches the ferny spirals are withdrawn at great speed.
We also dived at the Sugar Wreck, where an 80 metre long boat lies on its side. The currents were strong and we spent a lot of time fighting them. I found it difficult to work out what was what on the boat, but the massive propeller and rudder were unmissable. There was less marine life, other than millions of barnacles and molluscs, but we saw a school of juvenile chevron barracuda, each individual only about a foot long; five jackfish in a group; batfish; a big hermit crab; a couple of porcupinefish; and a starry pufferfish, over two feet long, which came right up to me and had a close look. Pufferfish are famously poisonous: the delicacy fugu is prepared from pufferfish. They also have the smallest genomes known among the vertebrates.
In fact almost everything underwater is venomous. Half of the fish carry poisons in their spines or their flesh; anemones, corals and hydroids carry nematocysts, as do jellyfish; and some starfish and octopuses are venomous. I am carrying the marks of a sea nettle, an anemone and a jellyfish, and the marks are not likely to disappear soon. The jellyfish, which stung me today on the neck on the hand, gave me the the most painful sting I've ever had.
Snorkelling again, with fantastic visibility, I saw about fifty longtoms varying from 18 inches to four feet in length. The immature longtoms were schooling, the adults on their own. They very long and thin, silver, with blue tails. They move very slowly, wiggling their hind parts and tails. They have a very long, narrow snout, with visible teeth. This time I saw eight black-tipped reef sharks and three titan triggerfish. They are large fish, two feet long or more, hideous, and they swim by waving their dorsal and anal fins. They are docile most of the time, but the females are known to attack divers when they have young.
I dived at Sea Bell, a coral reef around a lighthouse. This is a shallow dive with plenty to see. I saw a nudibranch (Phyllidia varicosa), several blue-ringed angelfish, a stripy lizardfish, several blue-spotted stingrays and beautiful bug-eyed blue-spotted fantail rays, a couple of razorfish, a big crocodile longtom, a couple of big tomato anemonefish – one guarding an anemone of the same lovely colour – and an attractive black and white sea cucumber with black feeding parts. (If you find these lists boring, skip them. This is primarily a record for me.)
This is a blue-banded angelfish.
I also snorkelled at Long Beach, on Perhentian Kecil, which was nowhere near as interesting as Shark Point, but there were still a lot of parrotfish, lyrefish and wrasse to watch. In the shallows there were also a lot of very curious sergeants and sergeant majors; highly territorial, they tend to swarm all around, coming within a couple of inches of the mask.
This is an anemone curled up in a defensive position.
Another thing worth mentioning is the hundreds of giant clams seen on every dive and snorkel trip. As often as not their shells have been incorporated into the local coral or otherwise encrusted; all that is visible is the colourful mantle. The mantle is colourful because they host symbiotic algae, which donate photosynthesised energy to their hosts. This is why they grow so big. The mantles come in various beautiful hues, always variegated: chocolate, green, bright blue, Native American turquoise. When something approches the mantles withdraws, but the shell seldom actually closes.
Tonight I’m at Redang Kalong Resort, which seems a really nice place. The Olympics are on – I’ve watched as much as I can – but of course, this being Malaysia, it’s tuned to the badminton. The Badminton World Federation is based in Kuala Lumpur, which hosted the world championships earlier this year. Many of the best players, particularly in the women’s game, are from southeast and east Asia. Badminton is an excellent sport but the swimming is on another channel right now…
I spent too long in Kota Bharu, because I could not get the booking I wanted on Perhentian. Kelantan, the state of which KB is the capital, is known for its crafts: batik, songket, silverware, wooden carving, woven rattan/bamboo/pandang.
There is a cultural centre, which hosts displays of kite-flying, drumming, wayang kulit etc. I was keen to see the shadow puppets, but the centre was closed, except when it opened to host a travel expo. The tourist information office was closed. Everything else was closed on Friday – which in Malaysia is only true of Kelantan and its neighbouring state Terengganu.
I mentioned that Kota Bahru calls itself bandar raya Islam - Islamic City. Even the street decorations bear the name of God or his Messenger.
Other than the Chinese and the tourists, every woman in Kota Bahru weirs a headscarf and a two-piece dress. More often than not the headscarf is plain and pale, on top of a darker dress. The younger women often look like Catholic nuns.
I had an idea of buying some batik or songket. There is a complex opposite the central market which specialises in batik, and there are lots of fine batik silk shirts on sale for £40 or so. Batik is merely a technique, and there is no limit in principle to the variety of design. The problem is that when it comes down to it, I can admire the batik shirt but I cannot imagine wearing it, unless in an attempt (which would unquestionably succeed) to win the lary shirt contest at my cricket club. It’s wildly garish, and works well on women, who dress like birds of paradise, and well enough on Malaysian and Indonesian men, but just makes a pasty-faced westerner look like a prat, I suspect.
KB is on a river – huge, slow, brown, like every other river I have seen in Malaysia - but has turned its back on it. That ought to change when the Pelangi mall opens.
I've included some pictures of nice buildings along the way, which is misleading. Most urban buildings in Malaysia have been built within the last forty years or so, in concrete. Kota Bahru, Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan basically looked like this.
Both the batik centre and the central market are right by the central mosque, and there are loudspeakers in both locations, and elsewhere in the town, carrying the voice of the imam whenever there are prayers. Including the dawn prayers. The central mosque, built in 1925, is nothing like as interesting as some of the mosques I have seen in Malaysia - more on that another time.
The central market is a wet market: on view, lots of fish that I have seen under water recently (and squid at RM7 a kilo), and the usual fly-ridden carcasses of chicken. At the centre, fruit, vegetable, tuber and legume. The colourful marketers blend in with the colourful fruit.
There is a ‘cultural village’ of traditional Malay wooden buildings, with an exhibition of Kelentan crafts on the upper floor. It’s mildly diverting; there are shops around the village selling said crafts, but they are selling goods of low quality at low prices; far more interesting would be, for example, proper gold-woven kain songket. But I did not see any.
There is also a war museum. The Japanese army, which invaded the Malay peninsula on 8 December 1941, attacked Kota Bharu first. There isn’t really much else to know, except that the four northern states of Malaysia came under Thai military control from 1943 until September 1945. The Japanese gave them, in effect, to the fascist government of Thailand as a favour for letting them invade through Thai territory. This is not as weird as it sounds: although it is a Sultanate, Kelantan was under Siamese influence until the British by gunboat diplomacy forced the Thais to cede it in the nineteenth century. This is one of several reasons why the border between Thailand and Malaysia is culturally fuzzy. There are also lots of Muslims in southern Thailand who would rather be part of Malaysia.
So I got pretty bored. KB is not a lively place. As is usually the way, I became so obsessed with the relative dearth of alcohol that I actually drank more than I have in most of the rest of Malaysia: two large bottles of beer a night, which costs far more than the food.
The best place I found in KB was a kek shop: a good place to try mysterious cakes and sponges and watch the Olympics. I watched the opening ceremony, with a Cantonese commentary, in a Chinese restaurant. There was a lot of excitement. Without David Coleman reading a prepared script, it was easier just to concentrate on the visual aspect of the opening, and I thought it was marvellous in the main, particularly the drumming, the martial arts and the imaginative use of calligraphy. (I did not care for the interludes with unnaturally well-behaved schoolchildren, but you get that kind of Hello-Kitty kitsch everywhere in east and southeast Asia.) I thought the lighting was fantastic.